Surrounded by mystery and conspirations, Vatican museums is one of the main attraction of the Vatican City in Rome.
Gathered by popes throughout the centuries, the Vatican museums’ collection counts with over 70,000 works, of art, archeology, and anthropology, from which, around 20,000 are on display and can be admired across its 54 galleries.
Besides these pieces, the highlights of the Vatican museums include painted rooms such as the Niccoline Chapel, Borgia Apartment and the famous Sistine Chapel, whose walls are completely covered by paintings made by famous artists like Raphel and Michelangelo. These rooms are masterpieces themselves.
Before visiting the museums, bear in mind it has over 7kms length, making it, one of the biggest museums in the world.
There is so much to see in the Vatican museums, to fully visit it and admire each work, you would need at least 2 or 3 days. Hence why I made this list of the best artworks you must see at the Vatican Museums.
For those who have a short stay in Rome, you better focus on going straight to the highlights museum. As always though, I highly recommend taking your time to visit it without a rush and admire other works besides these ones mentioned in the list.
The Vatican museums’ are normally very crowded, to have an idea, in 2017 it received 6 million people throughout the year. so I also suggest that you wear comfortable clothes, bring water with you, and be patient.
I visited it during the low season, and still, I spent one hour in line. Plus, there are rooms so crowded that to pass to the next one we had to way and go with the flux.
History of the Vatican Museums
With the intention of preserving the Roman history, the idea of founding a museum to safeguard and display the pieces that tell the history of the rise & fall of the Roman Empire, and the success & honor of the Catholic Church, has been cultivated by popes throughout the years, who considered themselves as the heirs of the Roman history.
It was in 1506, though, with the discovery of a marble statue close to a vineyard near the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, in Rome, and its acquisition by Pope Julius II, that the founding of the Vatican Museums was finally something concrete.
This statue is now one of the main pieces in the museum, the artwork is called Laocoön and His Sons’, and we will talk about it later in this post.
Pope Julius II, who was pontiff from 1503 to 1513 was responsible for a great part of the collection displayed in the first nucleus of the Vatican museums. He was also responsible for the update the decoration of the Sistine Chapel and commissioned Raphael’s room.
Highlights you must see at the Vatican Museum
Entering the Vatican Museums, the first room to visit is the Pinacoteca, which is a painting gallery. It also contains tapestry, icons, and sculptures.
After leaving the elevator, take your right and you will find the entrance.
The artworks are organized chronologically and cover from the Middle Ages through the 1800s.
Pinacoteca contains masterpieces of many Italian artists such as Perugino, Raphael, Caravaggio, etc.
Painted by Raphael, this is the last painting of the artist before he died.
The painting represents the dual nature of Jesus Christ, human and divine. It pictures one of the stories in the Gospel of Matthew.
Jesus is on the top, followed by the two prophets, prophets Elijah and Moses. While on the bottom you see the apostles accompanying a family whose son is apparently sick, the parents seem to look for a cure.
What calls attention in this piece is the colors and composition. While the top shows the divine, with bright colors and peaceful features. The bottom otherwise is dark, representing the earth’s life, with all humans carrying desperate yet surprise features.
Both sides of the painting are well connected by the apostles points up from the earth, in Crist’s direction, surprise for seeing Jesus alive, and showing that faith Can cure the boy.
This painting was actually commissioned to be an altarpiece to a church in France, by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici. The Pope decided to keep it in Rome instead.
Later it was stolen by Napoleon and effectively moved to France, but later returned to the Pinacoteca of the Vatican Museums.
Located in the Pio-Clementine museum, we can consider this part of the museum as Ground Zero!
This is where the museum really started and the Octagonal Courtyard was one of the first parts opened to the public, displaying statues such as the one I mentioned at the beginning of this post-Laocoön and His Sons’. We will talk about it in a bit.
As the Pio-Clementine museum houses a big collection, it is sometimes skipped by most of the visitors, but I really recommend taking your time in some of the artworks displayed here.
The Octagonal Courtyard, for example, can pass unnoticed by most, as the important masterpieces are displayed in the corners of the courtyard. But take your time to admire at least these two mentioned below.
Laocoön and His Sons’
And there it is, the statue that started the whole thing!
For those traveling to Florence, you will notice a copy of this statue in the Uffizi.
The statue represents a scene of the Trojan war myth, told in Virgil’s Aeneid. The Lacoon priest warned the citizens not to accept the giant wooden horse, that was sent as a gift by their enemies, the Greeks. Learning of this, goddess Athena sent two snakes to devour Lacoon’s sons, the poor man ended up being killed in the attempt to save his children.
Despite the citizens, Aeneas listened to the advice of Lacoon and left Troy by sea, arriving in Italy. He was the forefather of Romulus and Remus, who accordingly to the legend, founded Rome.
It is believed that this statue is actually a copy of a Greek one that might have been made of bronze.
I know that for those who are always visiting the museum, Greek statues can get boring sometimes. After a while, they start to look all the same. But there is a good reason for this one to be on the list, I swear!
For a long time, these specific statues has been considered the best example of art, and the ideal male body.
It represents god Apollo, moments after shotting an arrow, in a relaxed position and serene eyes.
Think of this statue was being the Mister Universe of his time. And one of the finest examples of the art of all time.
The statue was found in the 15th century and was acquired by Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere. So we can consider it as the oldest artwork in the possession of the Vatican Museums, as its been around since before there was any collection to display.
This is one of my favorite rooms in the museum, the architecture is very different from the rest, being inspired by the Pantheon.
The ceiling is a beautiful dome decorated with rosettes. The floor is decorated with beautiful mosaics that used to decorate an ancient Roman villa, it is very well preserved and the colors are still very vibrant. The walls are so refined, decorated with Roman statues that definitely bring you back in time, it definitely feels like visiting an ancient palace!
But doesn’t pass unnoticed is the beautiful Porphyry Basin placed in the middle of the room.
With a circumference of 13 meters, this huge basin was taken from Nero’s golden house (Domus Aurea) and served as his bath.
Porphyry is an igneous rock, in other words, it is created from the cooled lava. It is extremely hard to cut and was carved into a single piece over 2000 years ago in Egypt, where most of the porphyry comes from as there is a quarry there.
Now, if it is hard to cut it nowadays, imagine 2000 years ago! You definitely have to be someone really special to be able to afford a bathtub like this!
The Gallery of Tapestries
Shown to the public for the very first time in 1519, the Tapestries were an idea of Pope Leone X who wanted them to decor the walls of the Sistine Chapel. He then entrusts the task to Raffaello Sanzio, who drew the scenes.
In the other, the artist portraits the Biblical stories of Moses, in this one he prays tribute to Michelangelo’s paintings inside the Sistine Chapel, as the story of Moses displayed in the tapestries of Rafaello, connects to the stories told by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel’s walls.
The Maps Hall
Definitely what calls attention the most in this corridor is, without a doubt, its ceiling, which is carefully decored with colored stucco representing the cards of the Italian regions, its ports, and islands.
The precious maps displayed in the Maps Hall constitute documentation of the geographical knowledge of the sixteenth century.
The Borgia Apartments
While searching about Rome, or the Vatican, you will often hear the name Borgia, but who is this family, you may wonder?
Borgia was a noble family of Italian-Spanish origins, that during the Renaissance, was very prominent ecclesiastical and political affairs. The family produced two popes, rising the influence of the Borgias over the Vatican.
They are famous for the countless scandals and suspected of crimes such as adultery, incest, theft, murder, you name it. They also managed to turn many influential and rich families in Italy into their enemies.
If you want to know more about the infamous Borgia family, there is a series called Borgia that tells their story, I recommend watching.
The Borgia apartment was painted by Pinturicchio as requested by Rodrigo Borgia, also known as Pope Alessandro VI. The works started in 1492 and were finished in 1494. However, the apartment was only opened to the public recently.
The Borgia rooms are just magical, entering there gives you a ‘ travel back in time’ sensation. Details are everywhere, and the dark colors chosen for the painter, gives you a cozy sensation, it does feel like someone’s home, you can easily imagine the furniture and all the luxury this religious character used to live.
Probably made with the intention of outshining the Borgia apartment, Pope Julius II requested that the then young Raphael, decorate the new pope’s rooms. As a result, we have one of the best examples of Renaicentist artworks, and alongside the Sistine Chapel, the biggest sequence of frescos of the Renaissance era.
By the time of the death of Pope Julius II, only two of the rooms were frescoed though, but the project was continued by the next pope, Pope Leo X.
The first room to be decorated from Raphael’s rooms is known as the Room of the Signatura ( Stanza della Segnatura in Italian), it houses one of the masterpieces of the Vatican Museum, called The School of Athens.
The School of Athens
Located in the first room to be frescoed by Raphael, used as a library and study room by Pope Julius II, for that reason, the theme of the frescos is worldly and spiritual wisdom and the harmony between Christian teaching and Greek philosophy.
And in the middle of this scenario, comes the fresco known as The School of Athens, perhaps the most famous of Raphael’s frescoes.
What was trendy back then, was to decorate the library’s walls with portraits of great thinkers, and that’s what Raphel’s did here. Composing a masterpiece that reflected an intellectual concept, depicturing Plato and Aristotle in the middle of the scene, representing the two schools of philosophy.
Looking closely at the fresco, you may wonder what the hand gestures of these two characters mean. Well, nobody is really sure, but what is believed and agreed by some is that Plato points to the sky, as to indicate his Theory of Forms, where he argues that the real world is a spiritual one, instead of physical.
While Aristotle points his hand towards the floor, representing his idea of Empiricism, that knowledge comes from experience, that humans must have concrete evidence to support their ideas.
About the other figures painted in this fresco, some are hard to recognize, but among the ones we are sure about are great thinkers such as Socrates, Pythagoras, Euclid, and Ptolemy.
Standing in front of Ptolemy, holding the celestial globe, is what is believed to be, the astronomer Zoroaster, next to him, gazing at the viewer, is nobody less but Raphael himself.
Photobombing 16th century style.
We finally got to the cherry on the cake, perhaps the most important and most famous artwork in the Vatican Museums.
I must tell you, artistically speaking, this was one of the most impressive pieces of art I have ever seen. It is impossible not to be mesmerized by the richness of details.
This is the last spot to be seen in the Vatican Museums. Originally called Capella Magna, it was restored by Pope Sixtus IV, between 1477 and 1480. The frescos displayed were created by important artists of the time, like included Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Pinturicchio, Cosimo Rosselli and Domenico Ghirlandaio.
They were responsible for the frescos in the walls, representing the scenes of the old and new testament.
Back in that time, the ceiling was painted with starry stars while the altar wall had a scene of the birth of Jesus and the life of the Virgin.
Years later though, Michelangelo was called to change the decoration of the chapel a little. It was then that he painted the ceiling. Nine central panels showing stories of the Genesis, from the creation to the fall of man, the Flood and the rebirth of the human race with Noah.
Creation of Adam
Among all the details in the Sistine Chapel, its masterpiece is hanging in the ceiling. The Creation of Adam is one of the nine panels created by Michelangelo.
It is located right in the middle, and despite all the other scenes, it is impossible not to find this one, since you will find a crowd in the same spot looking up, that’s the hint.
The way the creation of the man is depicted in this scene is unique even for us nowadays. It shows God on the right floating on the sky, supported by angels. He tries to touch Adam, who is represented by a much younger man on the left, who raises his arm to respond to God’s touch. The touching act representing the act of giving life to the race.
What calls attention on this scene, especially for the time it was painted, is that God is depicted as an elderly, with grey hair and beard, wearing simple clothes that exposes part of his arms and legs.
Different than any other image made of God back in that period, when artists used to show a more royal and untouchable God. This one instead, gives an impression of being much more accessible.
The Last Judgement
In 1533, 25 years after finishing the ceiling, Michelangelo was requested again, this time by Clement VII to further alter the decoration by painting the Last Judgment on the altar wall.
The painting represents the second coming of Christ and God’s final judgment over the humankind.
Clearly influenced by Dante’s Divine Comedy, the artwork counts with over 300 figures painted in the scene, which is definitely an impressive number, and each one of them is depicted in different poses. One of these figures is Michelangelo himself!
The piece was criticized by many and considered a scandal due to the fact that all figures depicted were firstly painted nude by Michelangelo. The clothes were only added years after the death of Michelangelo by an artist called Daniele da Volterra.
Today the Sistine Chapel is the site of the Papal Conclave, meaning it is here that the selection of a new pope takes place.
The Spiral Staircase
Our last highlight will also be our way out of the Vatican Museum.
After leaving the Sistine chapel, you will have to make all your way back to the entrance, it is definitely a long way, perhaps a bit tiring, but don’t worry, it is a straight aisle leading back to the Vatican Museum’s entrance.
The double helix staircase allows that people ascending and those descending the staircase never meet, which allows uninterrupted traffic up and down.
The modern staircase we see today was built in 1932 by Giuseppe Momo. It was inspired by the original double-helix staircase known as the Bramante staircase that was built by Donato Bramante in 1505.